OAKLAND, Calif. — The official closing of Oracle Arena and the official haunting end to Kevin Durant’s season normally would be enough to occupy anyone’s deep thoughts in the Bay Area because both, in their own way, defined an era of Warriors basketball and became beloved.
Meanwhile, there’s another game to be played in the NBA Finals, and another championship to be won.
And there’s only one way to extend the former and accomplish the latter: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson must be at their splashiest, or else.
The margin for error in this series for the Warriors is now as thin as their odds of capturing it. They’re playing against a healthier team and a star who knows how to succeed in June. They’ve lost two straight at home to Toronto in the series and are 2-5 overall against the Raptors this season.
And aside from Curry and Thompson, who are averaging 57.4 points in The Finals, the Warriors are getting mixed results at best from a number of players who normally would be supportive, but aren’t.
So, a pattern has been established and a blueprint has been issued. Curry and Thompson must fight the double teams coming their way, and shoot with efficiency, and save enough energy for defense, and conserve enough wind to rescue the Warriors with big shots should the game be tight down the stretch … and then do it all over again in a Game 7 if they’re fortunate to get that far.
“They’ve done that since they’ve been here,” Shaun Livingston said. “That’s nothing to them.”
These are tenuous times for the Warriors, who’ll take a swirl of emotions into Game 6. Occupying a segment of their concentration is Durant, who underwent surgery Wednesday morning in New York for the Achilles he ruptured in Game 5. Durant is spoken about in somber terms within the organization, everyone realizing the sacrifice he made to return to action after a month off, and the risk he took with his body and by extension his future. The issue of basketball never comes up in conversation, meaning the Warriors are far more concerned with Durant’s recovery than what they’re missing with him off the floor.
There’s also the controversial angle with Durant and what amount the Warriors were culpable, or not, regarding his injury. Two days after team president Bob Myers fought tears and accepted blame, coach Steve Kerr was the answer man Wednesday and tried to make sense of the entire ordeal.
“Obviously, everyone feels horrible about what happened,” Kerr said. “Kevin checked all the boxes and he was cleared by everyone involved. Now, would we go back and do it all over again? Damn right. But that’s easy to say after the results … our feeling was the worst thing that could happen was a re-injury of the calf. So the Achilles came as a complete shock.”
Durant hasn’t spoken to the media since the injury, and in his limited social media reaction both before and after surgery, he didn’t point fingers. His mother, Wanda Durant, also dodged the issue of blame when she went on Good Morning America to discuss her son; her anger instead was directed at critics who initially questioned his injury and fans who cheered his re-injury.
Durant has shown support for his teammates almost immediately after he left the team. The relationship between Durant and the front office, on the other hand, remains murky, though not for long; it’ll be revealed in a few weeks at the latest, when Durant reaches free agency and determines his future.
In the meantime, the fate of the Warriors hinges heavily on their ability to replace what Durant offered. And much of that burden falls on a backcourt that spooked the Raptors late in Game 5 and will be pressed to duplicate and triplicate that in the next two games, if the second one is necessary.
Curry and Thompson have been teammates eight seasons and enjoy prominent mention among the best backcourts ever. Their chemistry together is perhaps unmatched. Their shooting range is historic. Their shared history — 11 combined All-Star teams and three titles — is rich. And the task facing them is monstrous.
Toronto is a solid defensive team, especially around the perimeter, where Curry and Thompson thrive. The Raptors will surely shadow each player around the floor and willingly leave certain reluctant shooters, such as Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, wide open as if encouraging them to shoot. There’s a reason for this strategy: Green and Iguodala have been awful from the outside in this series (a combined 9-of-35 from deep, with a majority of those shots uncontested) and haven’t done anything to deserve Toronto’s respect.
So, the Raptors will give them none, until and unless they prove worthy of it.
When Green and Iguodala shoot, the result is usually a miss, or a forced pass to another teammate, or a rash decision to attack the basket for a layup that is either successful or becomes an offensive foul or turnover. Essentially, there’s more bad than good.
Elsewhere: DeMarcus Cousins has had three decent quarters in the entire series and otherwise is overcome by poor decisions, fouls and turnovers. Livingston isn’t a deep threat, and so he can’t stretch the floor. Kevon Looney is playing through pain. Quinn Cook goes hot and cold. And no one else is on the floor long enough to help.
This whittles down to a pair of shooters who’ll be constantly run off screens and thrown the ball and asked to be volume shooters and efficient shooters. And clutch shooters, if the game comes down to that.
And just because Curry and Thompson have done all of the above for much of their career, there’s no guarantee they’ll do that over the next game, or two.
“I think they rely on their experience,” Livingston said. “They’ve been doing it for a while. There’s no pressure being down, what, six points, two minutes left? At that point they’ve got 25, 30 points, so they take the shot. You trust them. They know they’re getting the ball. That’s just how we play, how they play.”
It has become instinctive at this point for Curry and Thompson, given their knowledge of each other, their high level of comfortability and the trust they share.
“We just kind of go out there and play,” said Thompson. “We‘re very in tune with each other being that we’ve played with each other for years. So when we hit the open man — Steph doesn’t stop moving. Same for me. So it just comes down to having the chemistry we do with the team and just playing that ball movement type of basketball. I know Steph has been doing it for 10 years with this organization, and me eight. So we know what it’s like to take those, and we can live with the make or miss. It’s just what it comes down to.”
Curry and Thompson shot 27 threes in Game 5, which was a problem for Toronto. That means a majority of those shots came in rhythm and some uncontested; otherwise, there wouldn’t be as many attempts.
“You’ve got to be aware of them at all times,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “It ain’t just down the stretch. It’s all game.”
None of this would be possible if the Warriors weren’t experts at creating screens and using ball movement to find them. Green and Iguodala are solid at this, whipping the ball around the perimeter until it finds the designated shooter, often wide open.
“You got to guard them, got to find them in transition,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We’ve got to come up with a solution for that. They’re excellent at pushing off to create space. Their screens are long and wide. So you’ve got to work doubly, triply hard sometimes. There’s a lot of stuff going on and we need to do better.”
Oracle Arena will be alive for another day before it dies. The crowd will be a mixture of nostalgic and desperate and sympathetic toward Durant. And this atmosphere will play in the favor of a team that hasn’t been able to solve the Raptors at home.
Eventually, though, the ball is tossed and atmosphere can’t decide a game, certainly not a championship. That comes down to Kawhi Leonard and Toronto’s deep shooting and its defense and its ability to stay composed in the moment of truth.
For the Warriors? Easy. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, better make it rain. If not, this dynasty is a wash.
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